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In Viana: The Texture of Exile, the Practice of Hanging Out

I have acquired the coolest flip-flops in the universe (Brazilian Havaianas; even movie stars wear them, and I got them on sale for 11.90 Euros), a tan, and a little less of myself (the result, I suppose, of all this walking). When I catch my reflection in shop windows, I don´t recognize that woman. Could she be French? No. But Belgian, possibly, or German. The longer I stay here, the less often people recognize me as American on sight. Getting rid of the Beppis was a good move. I have also been turning over in my mind a braid of four conversations on the subject of exile. I have been observing and even practicing the Portuguese art of hanging out. I am so happy, the radiance has completely reordered my aura, I´m sure. I will have to ask Lola, who sees auras, when I get back to Texas. But about exile, wanderlust, and degrees of separation….

These four conversations haunt me. I play the words again, feel the texture of the speakers´emotions, relate those emotions to my own habits of discontent and intercontinental drift. First there was Leo in Leiria, reared in New Jersey of Portuguese parents. He returned here at the age of thirty-two to marry a Portuguese woman and to father the daughter who is the joy of his life. Then there is a waitress, born in Connecticut of Portuguese parents who moved back here ten years ago, when she was sixteen. She served me two lightly-fried fish about the length of my palm and the breadth of three fingers: sweet-fleshed and still redolent of the sea from which they were snatched just hours before I ate them. She wept, talking to me of her longing for the USA. Two hostel staff have told me their stories in French: a man and a woman, both born in France, both living a little uneasily with their choice to resettle in Portugal. The theme that emerges from all these conversations is that there is an essence of life in Portugal, a quiet joy that emanates from the stones, and there is TIME here, time for family, for love, for friends. And, I would add, for dancing. This ease is offset by financial tension. Then there is the longing each person has for those they love where they were, in conflict with the love they have for those they love where they are. The French woman from Nantes put it most succinctly: “In France you work, you sleep, you work, you sleep. You make good money, but you have no time to enjoy it. In Portugal you live. Now my parents and my brother and my memories are in France. My husband and my baby are in Portugal. Where do I live?”

The American-born waitress says, “There is an energy in America that I miss. Everyone there is full of dreams. Here,” her eyes fill with tears, “people are too easily satisfied. I think I want to go back, but how could I leave my family? How would I make a beginning without any money? I don´t know where I want to be.”

I think of my two African children. One went back. One doesn´t want to go back, though she would like to visit, to see who she is when she is there, and to see the few of her old friends who are still alive (most are dead from AIDS). I think of my two sons: one has never left Tucson; the other lives in buses with rock stars on the roads of the world. We risk breaking our hearts when we fall in love on different continents. But then, we risk breaking our hearts when we fall in love, period. I think of M´e Mpho, and how much of my own being I left in Africa after those six years. Africa changed me profoundly. But when I was there, I worked harder than I have ever worked in my life. I worked four people´s jobs, eighteen-hour days, seven-day weeks. There was more to do than I could ever finish. I drove myself nearly to death. It was not unfamiliar. I had done the same thing at Smith College. The difference was that in Africa, I enjoyed it. But it still wore me out. Portugal has offered me a completely different opportunity.

I look around me in Viana and see people hanging out on their balconies, sipping coffee and looking: at whirling and dipping sea gulls, at passers-by in every conceivable mode of dress, at the sky–thick with fog off the ocean yesterday morning, so clear it seemed I could lay my finger on St. Luzia in the afternoon, streaked with a different sunset every night. Each night at this time of year, in some square, live music begins at 10 p.m. Everyone who lives here, except the restauranteurs, goes home for a nap in the middle of the day and is then ready to party late at night. I haven´t made it to any of these concerts because after the all-day lock-out at the hostel, I´m too tired to begin again at 10 p.m. But last night I sat on the deck of the Gil Eannes to watch the sunset.

From the deck, on every balcony I could see, there were people leaning or sitting and looking, looking, looking at all there is to see. Beauty meets the eye wherever the eye lands: beauty of the river and beyond that the sea; beauty of a riot of flowers, public pots and private; beauty of architecture–pre-Celtic, Celtic, Roman, Romanesque, Gothic, 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th centuries, and under construction as we speak. Beauty of human faces and bodies; beauty of fountains, of peeling paint or fresh paint, of red tiles and curlicues, of statuary, of lines of laundry flapping: work pants, table cloths, baby shirts, boxer shorts, blue jeans, evening dresses, all shouting, LIFE HAPPENS IN THIS PLACE! People lean on their balconies at sunset and take in the life all around them. This is Portugal, and the smells: the sea, fresh fish, onions and garlic, bread baking, soap and perfume and aftershave in the morning, sweat in the afternoon. The cry of gulls, the murmur of conversations, the calls of fish-vendors, flower-vendors, Chinese crap-vendors, fruit vendors. The rumble of cars on cobblestones, the whoops of children, the blare of (usually American pop) music from stores and houses. This is Portugal: walls of mauve, leaf-green, honey-gold; richly-patterned tiled walls, stippled walls, walls scarred by neglect or spiffed up by renovation, stone walls with baby’s breath and ferns growing out of them, walls overspilling with wisteria, roses, grape-vines, and bouganvillea, walls broken by windows outlined in bright blue or scarlet or chocolate-brown, walls crumbling, walls being built, walls behind which people make love and drink wine and embrace their children fiercely and arrange woolen shawls around the shoulders of very old grandparents who sit on the balcony, looking.

And even though I cherish my good-enough life where it has landed, in Texas, where I never meant to be; and even though I see that all of life is one beating heart; and even though I know that the habit of discontent is seven parts illusion and three parts longing: I love this Portugal, and I find here what T.S. Eliot called “the stillness between two waves of the sea.” “At the still point, there the dance is.” I hold the gifts of those four conversations close to me, and I continue to learn what they tell me.

Whatever I do with the rest of my one wild and precious life, I vow to take Portugal with me. I vow to make space to hang out and to look for beauty, even if it doesn´t grab me by the shoulders and shake me, as it does here. I will come back to the images burned into my eyes and to the tastes, textures, sounds, and smells recorded in my brain and in my body. I will come back every time I close my eyes and remember.

And I will take my Havaiana flip-flops with me and wear them till they fall apart. The hell with hiking boots and all-terrain Beppis that make blisters on the tops AND bottoms of my toes. Today I am going to brave the beach in the sunny part of the day, fortified with SPF 45 suntan lotion and my Chinese discount store fake straw hat. (Chinese discount stores are the Wal-Marts of Europe.) Tomorrow I leave Portugal for four days in Galicia, where yet another language is spoken, one I don´t even have a clue how to speak or understand. Galicia, where, if I understand the Portuguese news announcers properly, the new leader of Cuba was born. Galicia, where I will go to the End of the World. Galicia, where I will go to Santiago de Compostela and not collect a “Compostela,” as I have not walked the established and time-honored route. Galicia. And what will that be?


6 responses to “In Viana: The Texture of Exile, the Practice of Hanging Out”

  1. Paulo Reis says:

    Dear Kendall,

    I am Paulo and we exchanged some e-mails proir to your departure. I did both the Portugese and French Caminos and would really like to talk to you if you happen to pass by Lisbon! It is really a pleasure to read your experiences as your journey proceeds! The Camino changed my life and still guides my Daily Journey. As I know that you´re learning Portuguese here is a sentence that reflects what I learned along the journey to my innersel along my Camino: “Descobri que havia passado a maior parte da vida buscando o ter. Pior, muitas vezes nem percebia que estava fazendo um esforço tremendo para parecer ter, não era nem para ter. No Caminho de Santiago, descobri o que realmente significa ser, simplesmente ser”.

  2. rhc9426 says:

    In Viana: The Texture of Exile, the Practice of Hanging Out…


  3. Noel says:

    Flip-flops in common

    After a morning of tracking stocks on software in a different universe (than yours), we have, at least, flip-flops in common. Mine are cool, black, rubber and Norwegian – great for bathing the dog this afternoon.

    Travel on!


  4. Joana Olhão says:

    It’s really great to see how your home country can have so many beatiful things seen through the eyes of those who look at it in a contemplative way.

    It’s something we, portuguese, miss very much. To be able to look at our own country without the traditional critical (usually not very informed) look.

    You should consider staying in Portugal and buying a house here. I even leave you here a web site for on-line mortgages 😉

    See you arround

  5. JetGirl says:

    another wonderful post.



  6. Kendall says:

    Thank you all. Paulo, please look for me at the Lisbon Lounge Hostel August 11. I don´t have your contact info, so I need you to leave a message for me. Joana, I am afraid I am not a candidate for a mortgage. I have to either work or live in a community of some kind, as I have no money saved for my old age. I have given away everything I didn´t need without much thought for the future, but living in Portugal would be beautiful. I am grateful that at least I have had the opportunity for a month. I will hold that in my heart always.
    Kendall aka Grannygold

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